As I circle closer to Tokyo, not only does the capital grow in proximity, but also its demands on my time and consciousness grow. I’ve written a lot during these travels on the nature of “home” and the meaning of a community as a kind of psychic base that grounds and contextualised music, and the home I’ve been trying to create around my label and events is something that needs constant maintenance.
With the impending closure of Koenji One, a monthly party that I organise with my colleague James Hadfield is in need of a new venue and a fitting sendoff. The Kyushu-based junk-punk trio Hakuchi, whose album I released in the summer, need my help in putting together a release event in Fukuoka. An event I’m organising in Tokyo at Christmas and a big one I’m helping with in January need my constant attention. And then there’s Small Lights, a tribute album to Mir, one of the first bands I ever released and a band who more than almost anyone else embody the creative spirit I try to keep in touch with in everything I do.
To that end, my arrival in Saitama puts my travels on hold for a week while I hole up in Studio Goro Goro near Kumagaya to oversee the mastering of the diverse selection of tracks that will make up the album.
Of course not knowing anything about mastering, what “oversee” mostly entails is me sitting in the room, nodding, and saying, “Yeah, that sounds good,” to everything the engineer suggests. What more there is to it comes around the fringes, with marginal differences in sound, tone, noise or sense of space that I need to have pointed out to me, but once they are take on incredible importance. When I talked about whirring down a mountain path, creating my own music by selectively listening to the wind in my ears and ambient sound around me, that was my primer in mastering, while a short excursion to a cluster of ancient burial mounds helped get us in the right kind of Druidic mind state to finish the job.
The other side of it is the tricky and ultimately doomed process of trying to protect the feelings, of everyone involved. With every change you make or ask for, you’re trampling on someone’s ego, and in a world where hardly anyone is working for anything other than the personal satisfaction of doing so, ego is powerful currency. Corralling all those people’s talents, efforts and creative intentions into a single coherent work of art is a task measured only in degrees of failure, and this is perhaps as it should be. Create a perfect work and the artist might as well kill themselves because where else is there to go?
Nevertheless, the sound of the album after a week of poring over it at least crossed one important hurdle: it satisfied me. More than anything else Call And Response Records has ever put together, it manages to be a reasonably sonically coherent work, combining tracks from a diverse variety of sources, all of extremely high creative accomplishment, with a single, easily recognisable emotional theme running through it. If my self-imposed task has been to help build a home out of sounds, this album is what that home is like.
Still numerous technical and organisational hurdles stand between the album and its Christmas release, and there still remains everyone else in the project – not to mention Mir themselves – to please, but it at least feels possible now.
Naturally, I wasn’t living a completely cocooned existence this whole time, and even as Tokyo piled its worries and concerns back on me, I continued trying to make sense of the musical map of the Kanto area.
In the Sun
Kumagaya is home to Mortar Records, a record store and live venue that acts as a sort of hub for the north Saitama music scene. Yamazaki, the owner, believes that Kumagaya, nearby Fukaya (where first generation punk band Totsuzen Danball still put on semi-regular events) and Chichibu (where the venue LadderLadder is) form a sort of north Saitama triangle with its own music community. In addition to the currently non-operative S-Explode, members of the band also do Gleam Garden and the fantastic new synth-kraut-noise-disco band In the Sun.
Meanwhile, Saitama City in the south of the prefecture is far closer to Tokyo, with fast rail links connecting it easily to the capital. Popular bands like The Telephones and Ling Tosite Sigure hail from that area.
Ling Tosite Sigure
Like nearly all record shops that specialise in new music, Mortar Records also represents a trend that we’re seeing throughout the music scene of the consolidation and vertical integration of various aspects of music infrastructure. It can’t make money out of just selling CDs and records, so it also works together with promoters to provide tour and merchandise support for touring bands, and with its own live space upstairs is able to put on the artists it sells as well.
“The live events started after 3/11 (the March 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster)” explains Yamazaki, “There were rolling blackouts throughout the area, and we would put on acoustic, totally unamplified events.”
Beginning as charity events to raise money for the affected parts of Tohoku, they eventually added amplification, and the live events now seem to be as important, if not more important, than the business of selling music in the first place, eith members of Tha Blue Herb, Tama and the Tenniscoats all performing there. What’s striking about it from a Tokyo perspective is the sheer size of the place, which would be completely unsustainable at Tokyo land rental prices.
One moment that felt telling to me came when Yamazaki asked me about my own label and I gave him a look at what I was currently working on at the studio. He knew a lot of the bands on the album, and declared them “cool”, but there was an edge to it that left an unspoken, “…but that shit won’t fly out here, kid!” There was an artsiness in a lot of it that would come across as pretentious to many of the people around here – that would lack the intimacy needed to forge a connection with an audience not used to such refined sonic aesthetics. I may be reading too much into his response, but only because it’s a thought backed up in nearly all of the live experiences so far on this tour, by observing audiences, artists and arenas in how they interact.
The north Saitama triangle can perhaps be extended to include Takasaki and Maebashi in Gunma, and Ashikaga in Tochigi, and while Tochigi is nominally the next destination on my trip, it is to Maebashi that I have to return to get my experience of Tochigi music, in the shape of the truly marvellous Teashikuchibiru.
Playing at a tea shop called Babakara-dori Kocha Stand as part of a series of events called Neko-Fes (Cat Festival), Teashikuchibiru’s whirlwind of acoustic guitar- and violin-based folk, punk, hip hop, new wave and other shared the stage with Tokyo-based singer and possible were-cat Sayuri Yanamoto’s borderline disturbed piano-led squealing. Both acts closed the night playing a few songs together, with the Jun Togawa-esque eccentricities of Yanamoto forcing a kind of looseness on the usually vacuum-tight Teashikuchibiru, the assurance and composure underlying her performance nonetheless keeping everything more or less lashed down and in shape.
Atsushi from Cool Fool and Furukawa from Sarushibai had both given me the same reaction when I asked about Tochigi: “The only cool stuff from there is in Ashikaga,” and as part of the small Ashikaga scene, Teashikuchibiru seem far more at home playing at venues in Gunma and Saitama (their next two shows after this will be at Cool Fool in Maebashi and Mortar Records in Kumagaya, which perhaps goes some way towards demonstrating how interconnected this area is) than they do in their home prefecture. Certainly Tochigi’s capital of Utsunomiya, with its largely mainstream pop-rock-oriented live venues, seemed as irrelevant to them as anywhere in Japan.